I ONCE had the joy of rifling through the vestments cupboards at Derby Cathedral, in the company of its embroidery-workshop leader, the late Canon Leslie Childs. It was the occasion of the cathedral’s 75th anniversary, and a set of copes and hoods in ivory Indian silk had been commissioned, to reflect the brilliance of the Ceri Richards windows that had been installed for the Golden Jubilee of 1977 — a glory of bright blues and yellows, illustrating the themes of All Saints and All Souls.
They shone like the sun. The embroidery was a living thing, “light and darkness leading to the vision of Christ’s glory”, Canon Childs exulted, caressing the bright-yellow hessian, scraps of Indian sari, metallic-thread organza layered on silk, and overlapping layers of chiffon.
As he drew garment after garment from the rail, the textile archive became nothing less than a pictorial history of the Church over the past century. There was the cope worn at the hallowing of the cathedral in 1927, a classic design of birds, exotic leaves, and flowers on Persian silk, which breathed importance and authority. There were the flamboyant designs of post-war Britain — medieval ideas in a modern context: judgement, heaven, and hell in prison bars and skulls; light cascading from heaven; hands uplifted in prayer; and quirky, childlike angels. “We had these done in 1954. They were startling to the point where the Derby Evening Telegraph was getting rude letters about the cathedral wasting money on rubbish,” Canon Childs said.
The 1970s brought new fabrics and equally startling colours; but it was a cope from the 1980s which he produced with the biggest flourish. An end-of-term assignment for students of Manchester Polytechnic, it was an exuberant and fantastic creation in the greens and golds of spring and Easter. The gold leather patches, the use of PVC, the appliqué net leaves, the fringing and beading were flights of late-20th-century fancy; but Canon Childs described the medieval breaking-up of its pattern into subdivisions as “pure Opus Anglicanum”.
Opus Anglicanum was the fine needlework of medieval England, renowned for its use of gold and silver threads on velvet or linen. Demand for it came from all over Europe, often for showpieces or gifts to a pope. A Vatican inventory of 1295 lists more than 113 pieces from England; but very few pieces survive in this country. “Survival is a hit-and-miss business,” David Hebblethwaite, an authority on vestments, and former secretary to the Liturgical Commission, said. “It’s only comparatively recently that people have begun to care about textiles.”
THERE were embroidery treasures before Opus Anglicanum, of course. Those of Durham Cathedral include the tenth-century stole, maniple, and girdle recorded as having been given by King Athelstan to the shrine of St Cuthbert. These are the only surviving pieces of Anglo-Saxon embroidery in England, and the only extant English embroideries that depict human figures.
Other early survivors include the vestments of Archbishop Hubert Walter, who died in 1205, and whose tomb in Canterbury Cathedral was opened in 1890 to verify the identity of its occupant. Inside was a collection of silver items, and the remains of the vestments in which he was buried. Some of these were unidentifiable scraps — possibly part of the alb, dalmatic, and tunicle — but items more beautifully preserved included an apparel (a piece that sits around the neck and is attached to the amice, a linen vestment worn beneath an alb).
Embroidered in silver and silver-gilt thread, the design has seven circles, with foliate scrolls in between. In the centre is Christ enthroned, and on either side are the symbols of the four Evangelists. In the outer circles are the Archangels Michael and Gabriel.
Also well preserved were the buskins (embroidered stockings worn by bishops), pieces of a stole, a mitre, and a pair of heavily embroidered slippers, the latter adorned with red gemstones. The silk uppers are decorated with garnets, and the soles are made of amber silk. The items, in the archives of Canterbury Cathedral, are not on permanent display, but were part of last year’s Magna Carta exhibition at the British Library.
On display in a forthcoming exhibition, “Masterpieces of Medieval Embroidery”, which will open at the Victoria & Albert Museum later this year, will be an embroidered vestment associated with Thomas Becket, together with other masterpieces produced for his friends and successor bishops at Canterbury. Treasures from the museum’s own fine collection include the Clare Chasuble of 1272-94, commissioned by Margaret de Clare, a member of one of England’s most powerful families; and the richly worked Tree of Jesse Cope (1295-1315), depicting a vine springing from the body of Jesse and sheltering prophets and ancestors of Christ.
Many of the early examples of vestments can be found abroad: chasubles from the Melk monastery in a museum in Vienna; a fine collection of medieval vestments in Uppsala Cathedral in Sweden; further pieces in Italy, Austria, and Germany, some of these having survived through association with a particular saint.
The V&A exhibition will bring back some of the most complex and ambitious ceremonial cloaks ever made for use in church services, including the Daroca Cope, portraying scenes from the creation of the world and the fall of Adam and Eve — a unique survival, as Old Testament iconography was rarely depicted in English medieval embroidery. The early-14th-century Toledo Cope is richly embroidered with foliage, masks, and birds, as well as the Virgin Mary and saints, some of whom are shown trampling their tormentors.
VESTMENTS that survive in England are mostly post-Reformation. Mr Hebblethwaite describes the scale of the burning and cutting up of vestments which took place at the Reformation as akin to “Church House sending out a circular to all Church of England churches saying, ‘Destroy all your vestments by next Sunday.’” A few survived when diligent churchwardens or aristocrats took them home and hid them, or took them to the Continent; and there are heritage collections in Roman Catholic institutions such as Stonyhurst and Ushaw.
It was Ushaw that loaned the Westminster vestment worn by Cardinal Vincent Nichols at a requiem for the repose of the soul of Richard III, reinterred in Leicester Cathedral last year after the discovery of his remains. The chasuble — believed to be from the King’s wardrobe, and to have been worn by Benedictine monks of Westminster Abbey during his reign — is considered to be a fine example of Opus Anglicanum. Made from velvet cloths of tissue linked together with silver-gilt brocading thread, it depicts the crucified Christ with the Roman soldier Longinus; and also features three saints: Nicholas, Catherine, and Pancras. The figures are cut from coloured silks and attached to a golden background.
Few such historic garments will bear wearing today. Durham, whose embroidery treasures represent the best church needlework from the past 11 centuries, also has four late-medieval copes; a cope bought for the visit of King Charles I to Durham in 1633; and a cope worn by Bishops of Durham at 20thcentury coronation services, when they stand at the monarch’s right hand throughout the ceremony. These are not on permanent display, but will feature in the cathedral’s “Open Treasure” exhibition this year.
CARLISLE and Worcester are among the cathedrals that hold other vestment treasures. Westminster Abbey has 12 copes bought after the Restoration: sets of three, to be used by the officiating minister, gospeller, and epistoler. Three crimson velvet and three dark-purple velvet copes, embroidered in gold and silver, said to date from this period, still remain, although they have probably been heavily restored over the centuries, the assistant Keeper of Muniments at the abbey, Christina Reynolds says. They are traditionally the copes that were worn at, respectively, the coronation of Charles II and his funeral.
One of the crimson Charles II copes was worn by the Dean of Westminster, Alan Don, at the 1953 coronation, instead of one of those newly made for the occasion. Three fine cloth-of-gold coats with a floral pattern were provided, made up into coats from early-17th-century material (possibly French); of these, two have been restored, and the other has disintegrated.
The survivors are all deemed too fragile to be worn nowadays. One restored one is displayed in the cope chest in the Pyx Chamber at the abbey. Of three duller-brown cloth-of-gold coats, only two remain, and are very fragile. One is on display at the V&A; and examples of the crimson and purple copes will be on show in the new Queen’s Jubilee Galleries, which are due to open at the abbey in 2018. The crimson and purple have not been worn in recent times, but there are 20th-century imitations of the dark purple ones, which are normally used at important funerals.
SIMPLE wear-and-tear saw off many vestments: the Lutherans, for example, had no quarrel with vestments, but were in the habit of wearing them until they fell to pieces. The Civil War finished off more. Copes survived in cathedrals because the Canons of 1604 deemed that they should be used for the celebration of communion — a custom that lasted into the 18th century, but then died out, and did not return until the mid-19th century and the coming of Tractarianism. They were worn at Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837, because that was a communion service, but were not seen again until her Jubilee in 1887.
In the intervening years, vestment-making began to flourish once again as the Catholic revival took hold. Furnishings and vestments were gradually reintroduced into churches during the 1830s and 1840s, under the influence of notable architects such as Pugin. He promoted medieval decorative arts and architecture as the basis for appropriate design; the concept of completing the entire schemes of churches, including designing embroideries, was also his.
He re-established the use of full flowing chasubles and small mitres, five-sided rather than conical in shape. His designs, including those for woven braids used to decorate investments, had a lasting impact, as did his volume Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament (1884). From this period come great names such as the architect George Frederick Bodley, one of the founders of Watts & Co, who supplied designs to convents and to the Royal School of Needlework; other influential designers from this period include Butterfield, Comper, Geldart, Hare, Kempe, and Street.
The Elizabeth Hoare Galleries in Liverpool Cathedral display many vestments from this period, assiduously collected by Elizabeth Hoare, niece to Sir Gilbert Scott, who was himself the son of a co-founder of Watts & Co. She rescued many vestments in the 1960s and ’70s, when many convent workrooms and church embroidery guilds were closing; the gallery was opened in 1992.
But work from this period remains in use in some of the great Anglo-Catholic churches, such as St Augustine’s, Kilburn, and St Alban the Martyr, Holborn. The latter — despite having lost much when it was bombed in 1941 — has a Comper set with beautiful embroidery; a black set to a Pugin design; a red set; and, most remarkable of all, the green high-mass set believed to be vestments worn in the time of Fr Alexander Mackonochie, who was persecuted by the Church Association under the Public Worship Regulation Act for ritualistic practices.
Evidence from the spies sent to find proof of these at targeted churches included the sighting of “three men in green” at the altar. Although the set has been remounted several times, the orphreys are believed to be the originals.
”Everything we have, we wear regularly,” the Assistant Curate of St Alban’s, the Revd Guy Willis says. “We don’t have things in cases; nothing is being held in awe and reverence as too precious to use. To have that connection with history is great, but what is very important is that these things are being used for the worship of God, which is what they were bought for in the first place: to make worship more beautiful and dignified.”
The “Open Treasure” exhibition experience at Durham Cathedral opens on 23 July. Phone 0191 386 4266. www.durhamcathedral.co.uk
“Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery” will be at the V&A, South Kensington, from 1 October until 5 February 2017. Phone 020 7942 2000. www.vam.ac.uk